Last Word: Break the Skills Shortage Cycle

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Andreas Bichler

Bicheler

A growing population coupled with increasing urbanization is stretching aging water infrastructure to capacity. In 2016, the world’s population reached an estimated 7.4 billion people.

With the United Nations predicting overall global demand for water to increase by 55 percent by 2050 and population figures expected to rise further to 11.2 billion by 2100, the pressure on our existing infrastructure and the challenges this presents will continue unabated.

It’s clear there is a need to deliver infrastructure that can manage the increased demand for water and wastewater – over long distances and increasingly remote environments — but also to optimize the performance of existing pipelines and minimize leakage.

An Age-old Tale

Yet across the globe, aging water and wastewater networks are causing the failure rates of pipes and inefficiency of networks to increase. This is due to critical water distribution and sewer infrastructure buried below ground approaching or exceeding its design life, and / or spend on substandard or non-certified products.

In fact, the ¹‘Break the Cycle’ study conducted by Trelleborg with municipalities and contractors found that a quarter of survey respondents had seen an increase in product or sewer failure rates due to lack of budget. The tendency in some countries to prioritize municipality budgets on infrastructure above ground, is leading to the specification of products or suppliers based on cost alone. This can often result in infiltration and exfiltration of the pipe network, particularly in relation to sewers. Ensuring the most suitable and cost-effective product is specified to meet or even exceed the requirements of the project is vital for the future performance of these networks.

In some economies, there is a recognition that the ‘patch rather than fix’ mentality needs to change when planning for future water management. The emergence of smart water technologies and technological advancements in both materials and application knowledge has already begun to pave the way for operational improvements and efficiencies.

The Skills Gap

Whilst these developments are a positive, the industry is being held back by a large block in the system – a skills shortage and a lack of trained people entering the workforce. This is preventing the industry from maintaining the pace of change and capitalizing on new technologies.

A recent study by ²CIWEM/MATCHTECH revealed the extent of the deficit, with 81 percent of employers seeing increased staff turnover and 70 percent saying skills shortages had resulted in a reduced ability to finish projects.

The existing workforce faces constant challenges and pressures to complete projects but a lack of support and training on new technologies and materials is resulting in an inability to use products and equipment correctly, ultimately leading to failure of systems on site and costly remedial work. Addressing these challenges with improved service offerings and product innovations that design-out human error and risk is essential and will make the industry attractive to new generations.

Working together

Trelleborg is a strong advocate of using technology to improve the provision of response rates and support. Having recently combined its technical and R&D teams across the various pipe seals product areas into one stronger, unified resource, the company is now using technology to enable this team to be more productive. Offering world-wide servicing on site or on the phone, the team can respond quicker and more effectively with a maximum 24-hour response rate. This ensures that professionals across the industry — from contractors, to pipe manufacturers, engineering firms and municipalities — get the support when and where they need it.

But with many onsite failures caused by a lack of knowledge on materials and how to install products, contractors need to involve the manufacturer at the design stage, to ensure they have the right method and products for their scope of application and get the support they need to correctly install and deliver the project to specification.

Manufacturers that can train operators how to use innovative systems — such as holistic no-dig pipe rehabilitation solutions — will provide the industry with the skills they need to capitalize on new technologies. This should be backed up with a practical, hands-on approach to learning with in-house product testing and training to reduce installation errors when on site.

A Smarter Future

With water scarcity, reliability and security still a concern across the globe, demand for long lasting (50-plus years) and reliable pipe networks is increasing. By making the most of new digital technologies, designing out human error and improving health and safety, the sector will become more attractive to new talent and ensure a better-quality infrastructure for all.

Andreas Bichler is R&D director for Trelleborg Pipe Seal.

¹ ‘Break the Cycle’ report by Trelleborg Pipe Seals, 2016.
² The 2016 Water and Environment Skill Shortage research, produced by engineering recruitment firm Matchtech and the CIWEM (Chartered Institution for Water and Environmental Management)

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